Crime

Acquaintances saw Muhammad as intelligent conversationalist

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story originally was published on Oct. 25, 2002.

Loren Martinson had a hard time believing that the friendly, bright man he once shared beers and conversations with at Waterfront Seafood and Bar could possibly be the sniper who has terrorized Washington, D.C.-area residents for weeks.

"He usually sat right here where I'm sitting right now," Martinson said Thursday, nursing a beer at the third-to-last stool at the bar where he and John Allen Muhammad would shoot the breeze.

Now, months later, Martinson doesn't remember too many details about the conversations, just that Muhammad didn't seem like the kind of man who could become a serial killer.

"Hell, yes, I was surprised," said Martinson, 55. "It kinda blew me out because I didn't think he was that kind of guy in any way.

"It was a good disguise or something."

Muhammad, 41, usually came into the tavern after breakfast was served at the nearby Lighthouse Mission, said Millie Ulmer, who tends bar at the Waterfront in the mornings.

"He came in often enough that several of my customers recognized him (on television)," Ulmer said. "The first thing my boss said to me was, 'God, Millie, you sat here and served him every morning.'"

Muhammad seemed like a quiet, pleasant man, she said.

"You never would have known, would you," said Ulmer, as she watched one of two televisions in the bar tuned to CNN.

SMART WORKER

Greg Grant, a real estate agent in Bellingham, owns and manages Country Garden Apartments, a former motel on eight acres about two miles south of Sumas. Last year, Grant said, he would often drive residents of Lighthouse Mission - including Muhammad on several occasions - to the apartments to do yard work and other chores, then back to the mission once the work was done.

Grant recalled that Muhammad stood out as someone who was pleasant, polite and well-spoken. During their time together, Muhammad didn't discuss politics or his military background, he said.

"He was very well-mannered, obviously well educated," Grant said. "I was very impressed with the way he handled himself."

APPLIED FOR JOB

At one point, Muhammad applied for a job as a cook at the Waterfront, said owner Lynne Farmer, who remembered Muhammad as quiet and soft-spoken.

"He seemed fine," she said.

But the tavern wasn't hiring then, Farmer said. And she hadn't had the best luck hiring people who live at the mission anyway, she said.

But Martinson, known as "Lorney" to the other regulars at the Waterfront, remembers Muhammad as different from stereotypical homeless people.

"When he carried on a conversation, he knew what he was saying," Martinson said. "He did interest me, because I didn't think he was a total lost cause."

Muhammad was a proud man who never said he lived at the mission, said Martinson, but he did say that he had been in the military.

Martinson hadn't recognized the angular-faced mug shot of Muhammad that came up on the screen, he said. But he did recognize Muhammad in another photo of him smiling, with his arm around his alleged partner in the shootings, John Lee Malvo, 17.

"He hit my heart, or else I wouldn't have bought him a drink," he said. "I just thought he was a good person."

Martinson then expelled a rueful "ha," as his eyes went up to the television where newscasters talked about Muhammad's arrest.

"My judgment of people - I'm beginning to wonder," he said.

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